The Chilean police punish us for daring to protest
My life changed completely on 8 November last year.
I’m a psychology student from Santiago, Chile, and university was basically my life. When I wasn’t studying I liked to play basketball, ride my bike and play the bass.
But that day, while I was participating in a mass social demonstration, Carabinero officers – members of the Chilean National Police – shot me in both eyes, leaving me completely blind.
Why did they shoot me? For exercising my right to protest.
Through the social demonstrations that began on 18 October 2019, we sought to change a system based on inequality. The protests started due to an increase in the price of public transport, but that was the straw that broke the camel’s back after decades of injustice. We took to the streets to change that, to demand more equal access to health and education, and better pensions.
But there’s always a certain level of risk involved when you take to the streets to demand your rights in Chile. There’s no guarantee that you will return home safely. When you go out to protest, despite being prepared with a helmet and a facemask for tear gas, or even taking bicarbonate and lemon to counter its effects, there’s no way to protect yourself from the munitions that the Carabineros fire from their guns.
According to the National Human Rights Institute, at least four people died at the hands of security forces during the first six weeks of the social outcry, and more than 12,500 were injured. Amnesty International has documented how they deliberately fired pellets and tear gas cannisters at the upper body of those protesting, causing at least 460 cases of ocular injuries by the end of the mass protests in March.
The authorities’ intention was clear: to hurt us as punishment for daring to protest.
Since then, many people from different areas have offered me help and we’ve built a giant network of people. I’m very grateful for all the support and solidarity that I’ve received. It gives me the strength to go on.
I’ve always thought that the search for justice, truth and reparation for the victims of human rights violations during the last military dictatorship of the 20th century in Chile was important, and now I believe that it’s very important to develop these support networks to fight for justice once again.
The authorities’ intention was clear: to hurt us as punishment for daring to protest
The authorities have been updating me on the progress of the investigation. There were a lot of delays, but in August, after nine months, they arrested Claudio Crespo, a Carabinero lieutenant colonel, as the alleged perpetrator of my injuries. I’m glad progress has been made in this respect and am now waiting for the justice system to do its job and also charge those who allowed the Carabineros to come out and shoot us day after day.
I’d like to thank Amnesty International because its support was extremely important in achieving this progress in my case. International solidarity is crucial as it seems that the government is more concerned about public opinion and pressure from abroad than from its own people. The support of international bodies is fundamental because it shines a spotlight on what is happening in Chile.
It has been hard for me to get used to losing my sight. During the first few days it was difficult for me to hold a fork to eat. I’ve had to learn all these processes all over again, but with time I’m developing the abilities that I need to continue with my life. Now I can do things like cooking – maybe badly, but I can do it – and I’m even learning to play the drums and the piano.
The most difficult thing has been going outside and using a walking stick. It’s stressful because of the noise and the surroundings. But in March I went out to protest again in the same plaza where I was shot. That was very important to me and it was moving to feel people’s affection. A lot of people thanked me; it felt strange but nice.
I’ve spent the last few months in lockdown with my family because of the pandemic. We’ve gone out as little as possible to avoid putting ourselves at risk, but unfortunately the repression in Chile has not stopped. The armed forces are in the streets, allegedly to help stop the spread of coronavirus, but they’re armed with their rifles and shotguns. It still doesn't make sense to me that this is happening in Chile. I don't understand the point of having soldiers with firearms in the street during a health crisis.
What gives me hope for the future of the country is the upcoming referendum to change the Constitution. It will not change things overnight, but I think it will be a big step forward.
The armed forces show up at the protests, but they’re not trained to maintain public order; on the contrary, they’re trained for war. In fact, several months ago, they shot a man and damaged his eye too, so unfortunately these things are still happening during the pandemic. There has been no change in the government's position on human rights violations.
What gives me hope for the future of the country is the upcoming referendum to change the Constitution. It will not change things overnight, but I think it will be a big step forward. The new Constitution must be based on respect for and guarantee of human rights. We also need a total restructuring of the Carabineros. We can’t allow them to keep hurting us.
I’ll always be willing to help other people who have suffered from state violence, however I can. This tragedy that we’ve experienced should never have happened. All that’s left is for us to keep demanding justice and reparation in all cases of human rights violations. We need to stay alert and follow the legal proceedings so that the perpetrators and the politicians who are responsible face justice.
The repression that we’ve experienced in Chile over the last year must never be repeated.
Gustavo Gatica’s case is featured in the 2020 edition of Write for Rights, Amnesty International’s annual global letter-writing campaign and the world’s biggest human rights event.